For the third year, Jewish Kids Groups, Atlanta’s independent Sunday and afterschool program, held its unique b’nai mitzvah ceremony.
It was a big day for David Buchacz – his bar mitzvah – but he didn’t read his parashah in front of a rabbi and an audience of congregants in tallitot. On Sunday, March 8, at The William Breman Jewish Home, he celebrated his bar mitzvah in a joint ceremony with nine other boys and girls. The merry band of friends kidded around on the stage. There was laughter here and there; the mood was festive. The children have been preparing for two years for this joyous moment. They have participated in community service together and chose a personal project related to Judaism, which they presented that day.
David’s parents are not religious; only one was born Jewish. “But it was important for us to raise David with a deep awareness of his roots,” explained Kate, his mother, … “we were looking for something different, a Judaism that emphasizes human values, not necessarily religious values.”
On stage, the boys wore ties, while some girls opted to wear tallitot. In front of them were 200 cheerful faces of parents, family members and friends. The buffet and music were ready. The ceremony followed JKG’s guiding principle and motto: Jewish education should be “fun and ridiculously cool!”
Following their speeches, the b’nai mitzvah students led the Havdalah, the service that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week. Symbolically, they too are separating themselves from childhood to enter adulthood, said Ana Robbins, JKG executive director. They understand that they are now responsible for their actions and Jewish learning. Next, each one was hoisted up on chairs, surrounded by their family and friends doing the hora; no way to avoid the tradition!
At the heart of this organization is Robbins, who grew up at and still attends Congregation Shearith Israel. But as an adult, she realized that not all kids have the kind of access to Judaism that she did if they go to secular schools. And she was sorry that “they will never have an opportunity to wear a yarmulke, to cook hamantaschen for Purim, or to sing ‘Hava Nagila.’ All Jewish children in Atlanta should have easy access to Jewish education that is meaningful and resonates with them.”
Today, JKG has locations in the Old Fourth Ward, Morningside, Dunwoody and two sites in Brookhaven.
Five years ago, the JKG concept of the collective b’nai mitzvah was born. “It is a coming-of-age celebration meant to reflect the Jewish experience of these kids and family,” Robbins claims. The program takes place over two years. In the first year, students bring the Jewish values they learn into the real world through a series of community service trips with their friends. They visit places such as the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Rebecca’s Tent homeless women’s shelter at Shearith Israel, and others.
In the second year, each student chooses a personal interest project to pursue from six months to a year. “They get up out of their seats, move around, and get their hands dirty,” Robbins said enthusiastically. They showcased their final projects March 8 with presentation boards, computers or music to back up their works.
David described how he volunteered for six months with middle school children from refugee families. Leo Rose impressed the audience with his work on the impact of Jews on comic book heroes. There was an emotional moment when Max Rothman, finishing his speech about Jewish agriculture, received his father’s tallit.
Then it was Leah Wolf’s turn to talk about eating ethically, and as vegetarian, how she tries to tie her choice with Jewish values. JKG also offered a group ceremony the day before, on Shabbat, but Leah chose to celebrate her bat mitzvah on March 8 “so that my grandparents, who are very religious, can come.” Leah recently announced that after this collective moment, she wanted to commit to a traditional bat mitzvah “alone,” with a rabbi and Torah reading. Rebecca and David, her parents, are not religious at all, but “we respect her desire,” Rebecca said. “It’s a path that Leah decided on her own, and certainly not lured by a lavish feast or mountains of gifts. It’s a wonderful thing about maturity. And for sure, JKG greatly has been contributing to this very beautiful path.” ⎧